Category Archives: teaching tips

Six questions to test your beginning reader knowledge

What is the best method for learning to read, based on research?

  • primarily using phonics
  • figuring out words from their context or from pictures
  • memorizing words (sight words, whole language)

Two fists with thumbs up and knuckles touching make letter "b" and "d" with a BeD visualized between the two thumbs.What two printed letters are the hardest for children to distinguish?

  • p and q
  • q and g
  • b and d
  • m and n

Which two short vowel sounds are hardest for children to distinguish?

  • a and e
  • e and i
  • o and u
  • a and o

In order to learn to read, do children need to recite and/or recognize the ABC’s in alphabetical order?

  • yes
  • no

Which comes first?

  • recognizing a letter
  • recognizing a sound?

How many letter sounds does a child need to hear and speak in order to speak standard American English?

  • 26
  • 23
  • 42

Answers

Three children with signs around their necks that read: Meniruze words, Phonics, Whole LanguagePrimarily using phonics is the best method for learning to read. The US government did a comprehensive study of hundreds of research studies on how children learn to read and discovered that using a phonics-based approach produces the best results.

Lower case “b” and “d” are the hardest letter shapes for children to distinguish. Most children are confused at first.  Sometimes this confusion lasts into third grade, but with time, all children figure it out.

Short “e” and “i” are the hardest letter sounds to distinguish. Most reading series start by teaching short “a” followed by short “o” because these two sounds are the easiest to distinguish.  Expect lots of errors when “e” and “i” words are learned, and expect learning them will take more time.  Short “u” is harder than “a” and “o,” but since there are far fewer such words, learning “u” is not so hard as learning “e” and “i.

Beginning readers do not need to know their ABC’s in order. Alphabetic order is a second or third grade skill, so it doesn’t need to be learned immediately.

Recognizing a sound is more important than recognizing a letter at first. Beginning readers need to be able to hear sounds and to pronounce them aloud.  They do not need an alphabet in front of them to do that.  Toddlers can learn to recognize sounds long before they are ready to read letters.

Child looking at flash cards of two and three letter words.

.

American standard English has 42 sounds. Some of the 26 letters duplicate sounds such as “c” and “k,” “c” and “s,” “s” and “z,” and “qu” and “kw.”  Many vowel sounds can be written multiple ways (ugly, Hannah, other).  Some sounds take two letters to make (th, ch, sh).  Regional dialects can add or subtract a sound or two, but in general there are 42 separate sounds in American English.

How to foster rich academic language

Academic language—the vocabulary and phrases we use to talk about what we are studying, such as “factor,” “amendment,” or “gerund”—begins early in a student’s life.  “Add” and “subtract” are academic words.  So are “vowel,” “consonant,” and “syllable.”

Today it seems there are more academic language words than when I was a student.  “Digraph” was a word I didn’t learn until I was an adult.  I didn’t need it.  As a student, I learned “blend” which meant both blends and digraphs.  I learned “evaporate” in high school when I studied the water cycle for the first time.  But my four-year-old grandson was taught evaporation in his preschool.  He explained: “The rain comes down and then it goes back up again.”

What can we do to help our youngest students become comfortable with academic language?  According to researchers Friedberg, Mitchell, and Brooke* we can do plenty.

We can foster a language rich environment, whether at home or in the classroom.  We can use precise, adult words which are just as easy to learn as “baby” words.  “Explain what you see.”  “What can you infer about the feelings of Cinderella?”

We can teach essential vocabulary, and repeat those words often so that students learn them.  “Before,” “during,” “next” and “after” are essential to describe sequences.  Synonyms and antonyms need to be taught.  “Sufficient” means “enough.”

We can teach words showing shades of meaning.    An “incident” is a small “event.”  A “catastrophe” is a big “problem.”

We can teach content area words.  In a math class, we can teach “addend” and “sum.”  In a reading class, we can teach “sentence” “fragment” and “run-on.”

We can model the use of academic language.  We can say “spider” and “insect,” not “bug.”

To reinforce meanings, we can show photos, draw pictures and use diagrams.  We can post graphics on the refrigerator or bulletin board for students to scrutinize up close.

As students become a bit older, we can teach root words, prefixes and suffixes to show word relationships.  “Un” means “not” so “unhealthy” means not healthy.  “Ful” at the end of a word turns a noun into an adjective, so “grace” becomes “graceful.”

We can model self-monitoring of comprehension.  We can read a sentence or a paragraph and then paraphrase aloud what we just read to prove we understand it.

*“​Understanding Academic Language and its Connection to School Success​” (Friedberg, Mitchell, & Brooke, 2016).

 

 

 

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.

Is your four- or five-year-old ready to read?

At four years old, and even at five years old, most children cannot put a hand over the top of their heads and touch the opposite ear.  This was an old-fashioned way to decide whether a child was ready to read.

young child attempting to touch his ear with opposite hand

But even so, some children are ready to learn to read at four and five.  What are some of the signs?

  • The child can hear and reproduce sounds and words well.
  • The child shows curiosity about letters and words.
  • The child likes rhymes.
  • The child wants to know how to write his or her name.
  • The child has a big vocabulary and eagerly adds more words.
  • The child likes being read to.
  • The child studies picture books for meaning.
  • The child can sit still for 10 or 15 minutes at a time.
  • The child has a long attention span for his age.

Even with all these qualities, some four- and five-year-olds are not ready to read.  If you start to do sound-letter work, and he bores of it or pushes it away, back off.  But keep reading to him, and asking him to do oral work—describing what he sees in pictures, inferring what the pictures mean, predicting what will happen next, and asking him to identify the main ideas.

Eventually he will want to know more.  By six-years-old, usually kindergarten-aged, a child should be learning to read.  But even then some children balk.  In some European countries reading isn’t taught until a child turns seven, at which time the process generally goes much more quickly than at four- or five-years-old.

Eight ways you can become a better reading teacher

Here are eight ways you can become a better reading teacher.

One.  Evaluate four- and five-year-olds to see if they are ready to learn to read.  If a student is not ready, delay.

Two.  Teach your beginning readers to encode more and to decode less. Offer daily time to orally create words from sounds that the students already know.  Show a picture of a pig.  Ask students to sound out pig, not using letters, but using the sounds in the word.

Three.  Start with words whose sounds have a one-to-one correspondence to consonant and short vowel letter sounds—no digraphs, no silent letters, no exceptions to the rules.

Four.  Refer to letters by their sounds for beginning readers. Explain that letters are pictures of sounds, and that it is the sounds which are important for reading.

Five.  Teach children to pay attention to their lips and mouths when they sound out words. Each time their mouth opens or closes, or their lips change shape, their mouth is saying a different sound.  When we join together the sounds, we form words.When you introduce the ABC’s, start with a one-to-one correspondence between the sounds of English and a letter or letter pair. This is easy if a consonant makes only one sound, such as “b.”  But when a sound can be represented multiple ways (for example, “oi” and “oy”) pick one “default” way for starts and stick to it.  Avoid words which are not spelled with the default letters.  You might teach boy, toy and coy, but for now avoid teaching boil, toil, and coil.  On the other hand, if a child writes, “Mom spoyls me,” ignore the misspelling.  But when children repeatedly write a word wrong (“wuz,” for example), tell them the correct spelling so the phonetic spelling does not become embedded in their brains.

Six.  Don’t teach concepts such as digraphs, blends, and diphthongs to beginning readers. Teach sounds.  If there are fancy academic words to call these sounds, don’t use them.  You will only confuse beginning readers.

Seven.  Don’t become a speller for your students. Once they are writing and using ABC’s, write difficult words on the board.  Otherwise, tell students to sound words out.  Also don’t mark misspelled words wrong.

Eight.  When you introduce ABC’s, use typefaces which show the versions of letters which children will use when they handwrite. For example, use this type of “a” and “g.” Also, typefaces which slightly enlarge half-space letters like “a,” “c” and “e” are easier for kids to read.  (The typeface you are reading is such a typeface.)

Decoding or encoding to learn to read?

So often when people talk about reading instruction, they talk about “decoding.”  By “decoding” they mean looking at a written word, such as “cat,” pronouncing each letter sound or digraph, and putting those letter sounds together to pronounce the whole word, with or without meaning.  I teach many children who can decode words correctly, but who have no idea what those words mean.

This decoding process starts with a visual image of a word.  But as brain research teaches us, a better way to start the process of reading is with sounds.  To start with sounds, though, means to start not with decoding but with encoding.  “Encoding” means starting with sounds and joining them together to form words.

How would we teach reading by encoding?  We might show a picture of a cat.  Children would say, “cat.”  They would think about what a cat is. Then students would sound out the word “cat,” listening for and then saying the separate sounds in the word–“c,” “a,” “t.”

With decoding, students break apart an already written word.  With encoding, students construct a word orally from a spoken or pictured word.  With decoding, students start the reading process by using the visual center of the brain, the right hemisphere.  With encoding, students start the reading process with the listening and speaking parts of the brain, the left hemisphere.

What difference does it make?  Students who encode start the reading process with sounds.  As toddlers, we learn words—their pronunciation and their meaning—through listening and repeating the sounds we hear.  If those words are nouns, we usually see an image of the word as well.  Later, when we see a cat or talk about a cat, we remember the image, how the word was pronounced and how we pronounced the word.  We don’t remember letters because we didn’t learn “cat” using an alphabet.  “Cat” was not originally stored in our brains in alphabetic form but rather in sound-picture associations.

With encoding, after the student has practiced weeks or months of oral sounding out of words, a teacher would introduce the alphabet a few letters at a time, and immediately help students construct words they know using sounds they already know.  With encoding, the child creates meaningful words.

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).